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In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

By the end of the 1930s, Depression-weary Americans were confronted with a housing shortage and skyrocketing prices. Norman Bel Geddes, perpetually optimistic, viewed the precarious geopolitical climate as a ripe opportunity to reshape domestic architecture. With a housing crisis, economic depression, and looming entrance into a world war, Bel Geddes believed Americans faced a defining moment in which they could forge “new beginnings.”

In 1939, Bel Geddes was commissioned by the Housing Corporation of America (HCA) to design and develop an affordable, prefabricated single–family dwelling. By the time of completion in 1941, Bel Geddes’s mass–produced house model included 27 separate building modules complete with doors, windows, utility units, and the kitchen and bathroom, “ready for connection to service lines.” The low–cost prefabricated panel system provided an economic alternative to traditional domestic building techniques.

To meet the needs of low–income families, each four–room home was to be erected for a cost of $2,500 under a “controlled co-operative” system. Licensed by the HCA, the co-operative system would provide former Works Progress Administration laborers with salaries and shares, thus keeping thousands of Americans off of government assistance. Bel Geddes sought to modernize the assembly and marketing of houses in anticipation of a postwar housing crisis.

Although the modular home project was never realized, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated dwelling system displays his ingenuity not only in building techniques but also in his promotional strategies. As a part of Revere Copper and Brass’s “Better Living Campaign” of 1941, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated home occupied full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1945 the Revere Copper and Brass Company had distributed more than 800,000 copies of a 12-page booklet describing Bel Geddes’s plan for “tomorrow’s homes for the many.”

Bel Geddes had explored ways to effectively configure space into cost-effective designs since the late 1930s. Ultimately, his interest in prefabrication waned after a proposed prefabricated “Expand-a-House” franchise in the mid-1950s failed to launch.

“Unassembled Model of Bel Geddes’s Prefabricated House” is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6.

Preview "Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" book

Scheduled for release on November 1, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams) is the first book to explore the entire scope of American stage and industrial designer, urban planner, and futurist Norman Bel Geddes’s life, career, and projects. Edited by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America reveals the astonishing breadth of Bel Geddes’s work.

Enjoy a preview of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America through Albrecht’s introduction to the volume, which includes images of Bel Geddes’s varied work, from construction of the stage set for The Eternal Road to his design for an all-weather, all-purpose never-built stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Essays by more than 15 leading scholars explore Bel Geddes’s work in theater, housing, graphic design, and workplaces, as well as his famous Futurama installation and his working process. More than 400 illustrations from the Bel Geddes archive at the Harry Ransom Center reveal and showcase Bel Geddes’s extensive interests and talents. Essay contributors include Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Christina Cogdell, Christin Essin, Christopher Innes, Sandy Isenstadt, Christopher Long, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Lawrence Speck, and others.

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is available for purchase at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk during gallery hours, with members receiving a discount.

Complementing the book is the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes's diagram for 'Highways and Horizons'

Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Forecasting the automobile’s ability to transform society, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes planned his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair around vehicular transportation systems. The Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” provided an international stage for Bel Geddes to showcase his optimistic and auto-centric vision of the future American landscape. Bel Geddes, along with other modernist pioneers, crafted models, dioramas, and multimedia displays to provide Depression-era Americans with a brighter vision of the future.

Eager to shape national consciousness, Bel Geddes provided attendees of Futurama at the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” pavilion with a choreographed experience on the curvilinear thoroughfares of an imagined 1960 America. One of the World Fair’s most popular attractions, Futurama led exhibit-goers on model highways through a massive model city, complete with miniature buildings, trees, and streamlined automobiles. The holistic urban plan of Futurama borrowed from Bel Geddes’s earlier theater work, in which he created a dynamic and participatory environment for audience members.

Shown here is a 1938 “diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit.” Tear-drop shaped highways bisect the model city and converge at the General Motors Exhibition Buildings, which housed Futurama. Proposing ways to alleviate traffic congestion and increase efficiency, Bel Geddes created imaginative traffic plans to route through-traffic around the city center.

Recognizing the growing importance of automobiles in American society, Bel Geddes modeled his Futurama around an intricate network of streamlined motorways. Futurama’s elevated pedestrian walks and interconnected highway systems would not only accommodate fast and more efficient modes of transportation but would also foster American egalitarianism through the linkage of rural and urban areas. Bel Geddes even fought “to keep large super-billboards off the highways in Futurama.”

With Futurama’s success, Bel Geddes pursued avenues to alter America’s fledgling car culture. Bel Geddes alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Futurama’s “enormous popularity. . . as indicated by the nation-wide press use of the subject matter, and the consequent editorial comment.” In response, Roosevelt appointed Bel Geddes to work on preliminary plans for the National Motorway Planning Authority, which influenced the interstate highway system of the 1950s.

This diagram of a city-traffic plan for 1960 is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Norman Bel Geddes's Motor Car No. 9, with and without tail fin, in the exhibition 'I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes's Motor Car No. 9, with and without tail fin, in the exhibition 'I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.' Photo by Pete Smith.
“FutureLand” guests bring their vision of the future to life with Toy Joy’s interactive "City of the Future” at the opening event. Photo by Hector Lopez.
“FutureLand” guests bring their vision of the future to life with Toy Joy’s interactive "City of the Future” at the opening event. Photo by Hector Lopez.
“FutureLand” attendees in the Norman Bel Geddes-inspired photo booth, featuring Motor Car No. 9. Photo by Tirzah Johnson.
“FutureLand” attendees in the Norman Bel Geddes-inspired photo booth, featuring Motor Car No. 9. Photo by Tirzah Johnson.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s Costume Designs for "The Miracle"

Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.

After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.

Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment that immersed audience members in the drama that surrounded them.

Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.

The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.

Materials from The Miracle and other theatrical works by Bel Geddes are on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Please click on the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Now open: “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America”

The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America opens today at the Harry Ransom Center. Running through January 6, 2013, the exhibition explores the life and career of American stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958).

Read what T Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Metropolis magazine have to say about the exhibition and Bel Geddes.

More than 300 items in the exhibition reflect the broad range of Bel Geddes’s interests and work and demonstrate how he shaped and continues to influence American culture and lifestyle. A polymath who had little academic or professional training in the areas he mastered, Bel Geddes had the ability to look at trends and the contemporary environment and envision how they could affect and alter the future.

“When you drive on an interstate highway, attend a multimedia Broadway show, dine in a sky-high revolving restaurant or watch a football game in an all-weather stadium, you owe a debt of gratitude to Norman Bel Geddes,” said exhibition organizer Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

All materials in the exhibition except two loaned items come from the Norman Bel Geddes archive at the Ransom Center.

Futurama car. Photo by Pete Smith. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Futurama car. Photo by Pete Smith. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Win tickets to “FutureLand” exhibition opening

The galleries are being transformed in preparation for the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America. We hope you will join us for “FutureLand,” the opening celebration for the exhibition from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, September 14.

Come relax in the Design Within Reach outdoor lounge, sip on refreshments from Austin Wine Merchant and Dripping Springs Texas Vodka, and escape the heat with architecturally-inspired ice cream sandwiches from Coolhaus. Bring your vision of the future to life with Toy Joy’s interactive “City of the Future” and pose in a photo booth with one of Bel Geddes’s famous streamlined cars.
You’ll also get a first look at the exhibition, have the opportunity to enter a drawing for a Bel Geddes-inspired prize package, and learn more about the life and career of this influential industrial designer who, more than any designer of his era, created and promoted a dynamic vision of the future.

The Ransom Center is giving away a pair of tickets to “FutureLand.” Email futurelandgiveaway@gmail.com with “Norman Bel Geddes” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for two “tickets to the future.”

Phil Patton offers reading recommendations relating to “Visions of the Future”

In conjunction with the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, the Harry Ransom Center hosts “Visions of the Future,” the tenth biennial Flair Symposium. The Flair Symposium honors the ideals set forth by Fleur Cowles and her landmark Flair magazine.

From November 1-3, the Ransom Center will bring together historians, architects, industrial designers, and visionaries in the fields of science fiction, film, theater, and future studies to explore the ways the future has been imagined over time.
Author and curator Phil Patton will moderate one of the symposium panels, “Motorways in the Twentieth Century and Today.”

Patton is the author of Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway, Autodesign International, and Made in USA: The Secret Histories of the Things that Made America. He has worked on several exhibitions, serving as Curatorial Consultant for Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century (The Museum of Modern Art, 1999) and Co-Curator for Cars, Culture, and the City (Museum of the City of New York, 2010). He writes for The New York Times and teaches at the Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts.

Below are some of Patton’s reading recommendations relating to the symposium theme. Mentioned authors Paul Daniel Marriott and Tom Vanderbilt are also panel participants for “Motorways in the Twentieth Century and Today.”

"Magic Motorways" (Random House, 1940) by Norman Bel Geddes.
"Magic Motorways" (Random House, 1940) by Norman Bel Geddes.
"The Power Broker: Robert Moses & the Fall of New York" (Knopf, 1975) by Robert Caro.
"The Power Broker: Robert Moses & the Fall of New York" (Knopf, 1975) by Robert Caro.
"The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today" (Knopf, 2010) by Ted Conover.
"The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today" (Knopf, 2010) by Ted Conover.
"Space, Time, & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition" (Harvard University Press, 1941) by Sigfried Giedion.
"Space, Time, & Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition" (Harvard University Press, 1941) by Sigfried Giedion.
"Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory" (HarperCollins, 2010) by Peter Hessler.
"Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory" (HarperCollins, 2010) by Peter Hessler.
"Saving Historic Roads: Design and Policy Guidelines" (John Wiley and Sons, 1997) by Paul Daniel Marriott.
"Saving Historic Roads: Design and Policy Guidelines" (John Wiley and Sons, 1997) by Paul Daniel Marriott.
"Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century" (MIT Press, 2010) by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns.
"Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century" (MIT Press, 2010) by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns.
"Speed Limits" (Skira, 2009) by Jeffrey T. Schnapp.
"Speed Limits" (Skira, 2009) by Jeffrey T. Schnapp.
"Traffic Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)" (Knopf, 2009) by Tom Vanderbilt.
"Traffic Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)" (Knopf, 2009) by Tom Vanderbilt.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

If you are visiting the Ransom Center this week, here are the holiday hours.

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
A close-up of Norman Bel Geddes's aero clown. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
A close-up of Norman Bel Geddes's aero clown. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 sketch for a clown in Macy’s parade. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 sketch for a clown in Macy’s parade. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes's sketch included color scheme specifications. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes's sketch included color scheme specifications. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Volunteer Emily Butts, a high school senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, uses the Vagelli board shear to cut paper and board to rehouse single leaves of handwritten documents, many on parchment, in the Center’s Medieval and Early Modern Manuscript Collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
Volunteer Emily Butts, a high school senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, uses the Vagelli board shear to cut paper and board to rehouse single leaves of handwritten documents, many on parchment, in the Center’s Medieval and Early Modern Manuscript Collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
Independent curator Donald Albrecht selects materials for the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” which opens at the Ransom Center in fall 2012. Photo by Pete Smith.
Independent curator Donald Albrecht selects materials for the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” which opens at the Ransom Center in fall 2012. Photo by Pete Smith.
The 2010-2011 undergraduate interns were honored for their contributions, ranging from addressing research queries to supporting exhibition planning and assisting in the preservation of the collections. Photo by Pete Smith.
The 2010-2011 undergraduate interns were honored for their contributions, ranging from addressing research queries to supporting exhibition planning and assisting in the preservation of the collections. Photo by Pete Smith.